By Deacon Gerard-Marie Anthony and Dr. Sabine Heisman
A deacon is an icon of Christ the servant. Christ came to serve, search out the sick (Mk. 2:17), and help heal the brokenhearted (Ps. 147:3). We too, as His deacons, must serve in these ways to be the icons we are called to be through our ordination. Thus, the National Directory of the Formation, Ministry, and Life of the Permanent Diaconate states:
“The deacon must strive, therefore, to serve all of humanity …while devoting particular care to the suffering… Ultimately, the deacon’s principle diakonia—a sign of the Church’s mission—“should bring [all whom he serves] to an experience of God’s love and move [them] to conversion by opening [their] heart[s] to the work of grace.”(paragraph 85).
As servants who should “strive to particularly care for the suffering.” One forgotten but a common group of people who suffer are families, particularly mothers, who have miscarriages or stillborn babies. The March of Dimes tells us that almost half of the pregnancies may end in a miscarriage (many are unknown because they happen in the first trimester), but 1 in 4 of known pregnancies end in miscarriage (loss of a child under 20 weeks)/stillbirths(loss of a child 20 weeks and older).
Brokenhearted After a Miscarriage or Stillbirth
Many of our flock have been brokenhearted at some point in time due to a miscarriage or stillbirth, but if we’re honest, how many of us as clergy have helped accompany a family through this traumatizing time of life? How many of us have helped the family “experience God’s love” and “open their hearts to a work of grace”? This is the reason for this article.
Some married permanent deacons may have experienced a miscarriage first-hand, but many of the clergy do not know miscarriages/stillbirths are a prevalent problem because it is a taboo topic. As a clinical psychologist and mother who has suffered a miscarriage (twins, in 2016), I can speak to the devastating impact of child loss to our community. One of the most difficult things to navigate after such an experience is the lack of “appropriate,” albeit well-intentioned, responsiveness from members of the community.
Through A Mom’s Peace (an organization that assists with burial arrangements for families who have experienced child loss), we were able to bury our twins, as well as an incredibly helpful Catholic priest, was present in overseeing the burial rites. However, as I attempted to navigate and process the grief, I reached out to several clergy members who were not as helpful as they could have been. Our goal is to assist members of the clergy with information and strategies so they can more effectively serve their community through the specific grief process of child loss.
Thus, we, as a deacon and clinical psychologist/mother, will address three important items to help deacons serve their people. We will examine those items clergy need to be aware of when ministering to families/mothers who are going through a miscarriage. Secondly, we will look at helpful and non-helpful things based on experience to say/do when interacting with a mother who has gone through this traumatizing event. Third, we will look at things the Church can do to help families develop resiliency and not lose hope.
Speaking as a mother, one of the most important points for clergy to understand is the immediate physical state a woman is in after suffering a miscarriage/stillbirth. This is not often addressed because the immediate priority is logistics (i.e., burial of the child). Oftentimes, a woman is not only attempting to process the loss of a child, but also the physical pain associated with the experience. A miscarriage is incredibly painful; at times, surgery is even necessary as part of the process.
With stillbirths, women often still have to go through the process of actually giving birth. Yet, despite her own physical pain, she has to worry about the logistics of burying or memorializing a child, perhaps caring for other children or family members, and financial concerns (i.e., going back to work). I was never asked how I was physically doing after my miscarriage. Rather, people would attempt condolences, “God needed another angel,” or “At least you can be grateful you already have a child.” These statements are not helpful! Not only acknowledging that a woman has been through a physically gruelling experience, but also, asking how you can help alleviate the burden is validating.
Deacons and Clergy Can Help
Deacons can help by empathizing with the mother and meeting her needs, such as offering to organize a week of meals to be brought to the home, or gathering youth groups to help with light household duties so the mother can physically recover.
Psychologically, grief is a very long process. Supporting a mother who has lost a child is an ongoing journey that does not end after the burial of the child. Saying their child’s name, honoring their memory (e.g, during the holiday season especially), and acknowledging the long- term impact of the loss is critical to the family’s acceptance process.
Clergy should do check-ins with the mother (not only in the immediate weeks following the loss but in the months, even years after), offer continuous support through the grieving process, and encourage mothers to seek out professional, therapeutic interventions as a priority. Mothers tend to worry about everyone else, but they often neglect their own self-care. Society continues to view child loss as something we “shouldn’t dwell on,” but a mother may need extra support even years after the loss of a child.
Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, spiritual support is often not readily available. There are very few active, clergy-run support groups for mothers who have suffered miscarriages/stillbirths. One of the most disappointing experiences after my miscarriage was going to a priest for spiritual counsel and hearing that according to church doctrine, “we don’t really know where your baby is, hopefully, heaven.” This was not helpful! Mothers often feel lost after losing a child, and while fully recognizing that there may not be definitive answers, being provided with hope would be helpful. For example, I later learned about the concept of “baptism by desire,” and how that was likely applicable to my children (see CCC1260-1261). This provided hope that I would be reunited with them. When a mother seeks spiritual support, sometimes she seeks to know “why,” other times, it’s more a matter of “will I see them again?” Spiritual guidance and support are critical to the long-term acceptance process when dealing with child loss. Discussing the loss of a child may be uncomfortable for the listener, but a mother often wants and needs to discuss the experience.
Members of the clergy need to become more comfortable discussing this topic as an absolute minimum of 20% of their congregation has experienced child loss either directly or indirectly. Thus, it could be addressed in respect-life Sunday homilies or mentioned in marriage preparation since it is likely to happen with having children. Ultimately, clergy should be active companions to families who have suffered child loss to provide hope in God’s mercy as well as heaven and to help the family navigate the journey from grief to acceptance.
Our Primary Diakonia
In Conclusion, we see that Mark 5 is an analogy of how we should live out the National Diaconate Directory’s focus towards our primary diakonia. There, we hear about 3 different kinds of health that Jesus offers- an exorcism of the demoniac, the healing a woman hemorrhaging for 12 years, and raising Jarius’s daughter from the dead. These all relate to parishioners who have experienced the tragedy of miscarriage or stillborn birth. First, through the symbol of exorcism, we realize we must help the mother to be delivered from the demon of despair through grace. This means we strive to understand what she is going through physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Next, the mother must touch Jesus’ cloak stopping the hemorrhage of shock and grief which keeps her and/or family unable to move forward.
Touching Christ’s cloak means being wrapped in the Church’s accompaniment so clergy should go the extra mile to accompany hurting families. Finally, with grace and accompaniment, the mother can place her child and grief in Christ. This can help transform grief into acceptance while continuing to live out her vocation as mother/beloved of God just as Jesus transformed death into life with Jarius’s daughter.
The clergy, especially the deacon, have a pivotal role to imitate Christ in each of these three aspects of healing. Christ came to serve by seeking out the sick and healing the brokenhearted. As His icon, we must do the same by serving those who have broken hearts from miscarriage/stillbirth and point to Jesus, the Divine Physician, whose love can heal all wounds.
A M.O.M.S Peace can be found at https://www.amomspeace.org